Beijing (1950s) / Politicians v.s. Architects

During the famous controversial debate in the early 1950s on the urban planning of Beijing, centering on issues  such as whether to preserve or to reconstruct, to rebuild the original city centre or to disperse city centers, I see divergent positions from different social roles. Politicians, engineers and architects, due to different knowledge they have received and distinct concerns according to their professions, did not share the same mind yet could not avoid cooperation.

In politicians, I see ambition.

The leaders of Beijing at that time are now constantly accused of murdering the old Beijing, according to a number of history reviewers nowadays. But they were not born to destruct; ironically, they thought of themselves as constructers for the city during their destruction.

In fact, not long before Liang Sicheng’s conflict with the leaders of Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1950s, he got along well with them and even felt telepathic. In 1948 before the CPC took power in Beijing, the Central Military Commission instructed troops to pay due attention to protecting the city’s historic monuments in case of attacking Beiping. A PLA officer visited Liang Sicheng and asked him to draw a map of monumental structures in the besieged city in case the troops had to fight to seize the city. Liang Sicheng was moved to tears:”I had had no idea of what the CPC was all about, but on that day, I fell in love with it instantly.” (Liang, 1957)

Before the troops became administrators, they might view themselves as potential residents who as well wanted to keep the memory and beauty of the city, even in case of a war. It was astonishing that they put the preservation of relics to almost the equal weight of winning the battle. Once they took charge, they were expected to change something, unfortunately, instead of simply preserving. They tend to believe that constructing is greater than preserving, because preservers are not likely to be though of. Today we think of Liang Sicheng, fondly, because he was a fighter in attempt to be a preserver. But imagine if everyone simply preserves the status quo, no one is likely to be written into history. That could be one reason that politicians always want a change.

Plus, politicians have more aspects in their minds other than purely urban form. the Beijing in 1949 was without heavy industry  and the industrial workers make up only 4% of the city’s population (Wang, 2011, p. 110). When the Soviet advisor compared it to Moscow’s 25% of population, the politicians felt the urge to exemplify the party’s political stand. They also estimated the economic issues and assumed that rebuilding the old city centre saved more budget than generating a new centre; their estimation could be wrong, though – after all they are leading a third-world nation yet longed for modernism out of scarcity (Lu, 2006, p. 7).

“Rome wasn’t built in a day.” But the politicians’ career was too short to wait patiently. They were anxiously ambitious to achieve, at the price of sacrificing the things they had not found precious yet.


Liang, S. (1957). Why do I love our party so much. People’s Daily, p.2.

Wang, J. (2011). Beijing record. Singapore: World Scientific.

Lu, D. (2006). Remaking Chinese Urban Form: Modernity, Scarcity and Space, 1949–2005. New York: Routledge.

1 Comment on “Beijing (1950s) / Politicians v.s. Architects

  1. This is a strong thesis about Beijing. The historical documents are very much available. The Liang Sicheng plans and the historic city walls are good platforms to discuss how the debate between architecture and politics is taking place. As far as research methodology is concerned, it is important to position this argument with a clear urban plan or policy and its author, supported by historical documents. This will allow you to organize other slightly disparate ideas and narratives around this historical fact. You can even afford to be more speculative about your observations, once you have this grounding in a specific time, place, with specific protagonists.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.